A cultural response to the 'Great Resignation'

The “Great Resignation” is here, and the facts on this disruptive trend are certainly troubling.

Companies across the U.S. are coping with unprecedented shifts in the post-pandemic labor market. In July 2021 alone, some 4 million American workers quit their jobs to seek other opportunities, with a Bureau of Labor Statistics report noting this figure had barely changed from the previous month. Surveys suggest a clear majority of workers — as many as 70%, depending on who you ask — are searching for something new.

Headlines about high attrition are not unique to the COVID era. But, the current situation is fueling further anxiety among businesses already on edge about disrupted supply chains, confusion around new vaccination mandates and public health guidelines, and increased operational costs. High turnover compounds those pressures.

There seem to be as many reasons for switching jobs or industries as there are employees. Some may have made the change to fulfill a longtime dream of working in a particular career. But, others left for reasons at least partially within a business’ control: the parent who needed greater flexibility to help their kids with remote learning; an employee who worried about staffing and operational changes their company made to cope with the pandemic; people who felt unseen by supervisors; or those who were burned out — a risk that looms large even outside particularly stressful sectors like health care.

Indeed, a Gallup poll suggested as many as 57% of U.S. workers feel stressed on a daily basis. 

Despite all this, much of the discussion around dealing with the Great Resignation has the appearance of companies “keeping up with the Joneses” — trying to outdo one another with eye-catching sign-on bonuses, extra paid vacation days, or tuition assistance. 

All are noble goals, with obvious material benefits to employees, but few of those measures answer the real question of why people leave companies.

Instead, a cultural response may be more suitable. A deep dive into operations and practices can generate long-term changes that make companies appear more flexible and attractive to workers. In the short-term, this option is also more cost-effective compared to pay increases, bonuses, tuition assistance, and other measures. There are three core ways to get started.

Don’t assume — confirm 
Even in the most apparently open or informal working environment, many employees will hesitate to express that they are bored, worried, uncomfortable with a situation, or feel as if they do not fit in with their teams. 

Research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that people will speak up in environments where their contributions are expected and valued. But, this does not negate the importance of performing regular “temperature checks” and one-on-ones to proactively gauge how they are feeling — in their roles and in general.

Get specific, and be clear that there are no right or wrong answers. How do they feel they could be better supported? Is there anything missing from their day-to-day experiences? Do employees feel they have enough time and resources to do their work? Are they expressing signs of burnout?

Treat relationships like an investment 
While there’s a financial component to it, this exercise should instead approach employees the way we would any other human relationship. Encourage direct, respectful and professional honesty, without consequences. This includes being open to hearing that an employee would be willing to leave you for the right opportunity and responding by asking how their experience at the company could be better.

Enough of those responses may convince your company it needs to make investments in things like higher wages and additional time off. But, you may find just as often that strengthening employee advocacy can be accomplished by implementing skip-level meetings or communication, or adding more team-building exercises to encourage a greater sense of ownership of the brand. Stay open-minded about whatever you hear, and be prepared to adjust accordingly.  

Perform a companywide culture check
To make this process more empirical and data-driven, a third party can help develop an engagement index, pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of the company’s cultural framework. This should include more subjective measures, such as whether employees feel happy and engaged with the work they do as well as objective indicators, like how much company pay and benefits afford them the opportunity to live healthy and fulfilled lives away from their desks. 

Companies’ best bet for mitigating the impact of the Great Resignation on their operations is to recruit the people they already have. Some of this may involve updates to pay or perks, but much of it is about leveraging open communication to improve operations and interpersonal relationships at all levels. 

As a manager, you likely know why people would, or should, want to work for your company. But, before it’s too late, ask yourself: Do our employees know?

This column originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal and was written by Kristin Lockhart, VP of recruiting services at Adams Keegan.